Without Purpose, Your Organization is Rudderless

purpose and culture

My admiration for Challenger brands—brands that look squarely in the eyes of the incumbents, the Goliaths of a category, and say “There is a better way and here it is”—stems from a discipline and devotion to their Purpose that isn’t swayed by fashion, trend or whim. They remain focused on the reason their founders began the company to start with.

Leadership, purpose and culture are inextricably linked
In my consultancy work, I often observe that getting to a company’s Purpose is incredibly hard. Questions abound as to whether all that hard work is really going to make a significant impact on their top or bottom-line.

Let me ask if these outcomes aren’t worth the effort.

  • A more enlightened work-force. One of the central benefits of a well-articulated and well-understood Purpose is that employees know exactly who they work for and what they’re trying to achieve in their daily efforts. Purpose drives comprehension.
  • A stronger corporate culture. A Purpose that acts as an aspiration and “true north” for the organization becomes the bedrock of stronger corporate cultures. Ask organizations like Zappos and The Four Seasons about how their Purpose informs their much-admired cultures. Purpose drives cohesion.
  • A filtering mechanism for decisions. I’ve been fortunate enough to see organizations use their Purpose to guide decisions as varied as the market sectors they’d enter, or not; the partner and franchisees they’d partner with, or not; and even the types of employees they consider hiring or promoting. Purpose drives fundamental business choices.  

The purpose of Challengers
Red Bull’s focus on “energizing the world” means there’s no incongruity when they hold air races in crowded downtown areas, take free-running from an underground niche past-time into the mainstream or throw a man from outer space in real-time. Or when they open their own travelling music academy to nurture fresh new talent, no-body says “That’s not Red Bull.” More often, the reaction is “Of course. Who else but Red Bull could do that?”

Equally, you can track the activities of an organization like Starbucks and draw a very straight line of Purpose that connects all their initiatives and drives their Culture. The deep and ongoing training of their Baristas is a direct reflection of an unwavering commitment to their Purpose. How else can you genuinely create a third place without unparalleled levels of service, personalization and a sense of community? In addition, enlightened policies related to education, share ownership and promotion further highlight how Howard Schultz realizes that you need a Purpose that galvanizes employees. Ultimately, if your Purpose can’t be directly tied to Values and Behaviours – the cornerstones of Culture – then, unfortunately, its nothing more than a PR platitude.

Above all, be of single aim; have a legitimate and useful purpose, and devote yourself unreservedly to it. ~James Allen

The Rudderless
Conversely, we’ve all witnessed the rapid and public implosion of UBER. No one can deny that dismal Leadership and a lack of a meaningful Purpose are central to that story. When your leadership considers UBER drivers as nothing more than a cost to be managed, rather than a human being to be nurtured and thanked, can you be surprised at the backlash? When your leadership exalts in boorish and misogynistic behaviour, can you be shocked at pitiful diversity, inclusivity and engagement levels? Look no further than Susan Fowler’s famous viral post to see glaring signs that Cultures are modeled on the behaviour of Leadership. And not just executive leadership, but leadership at each and every level in an organization.

So how is it that stories like UBER are so prevalent?

From my view, many of these failed efforts happen because organizations are looking for love in all the wrong places. Rather than looking deep within themselves – to their Purpose – they try desperately to ride a trend or co-opt something current and en vogue so as to appear fashionable. Case in point, for all the current clamor behind “innovation” or “digital transformation,” how many of those well-intentioned initiatives begin half-cocked? How many websites are never visited? How many applications are never downloaded by anyone other than the family of the developers? How many products go from lauded to landfill without making the barest dent in the lives of consumers?

There is a classic line from Hollywood I hear in my work and is often said with the same gravitas as James Earl Jones summons in “Field of Dreams.”

“If you build it, they will come.”

“If. You. Build. It, They WILL come.”

I think we all realize just how empty and dangerously naïve that phrase is in today’s market.

If the risk is fully aligned with your purpose and mission, then it’s worth considering. ~Peter Diamandis

What’s it worth?  

For those companies unwilling to invest in defining their Purpose, is not doing the work worth the risk? Do you think you can still launch new products, attract new investment, stimulate and galvanize your workforce without a steadfast Purpose?

Is that something you’re prepared to bet the farm on?

I welcome and look forward to your thoughts and comments below.


Adapted and reprinted with permission from HiltonBarbour.com.

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Hilton Barbour is a brand and marketing strategist with 20 years of International experience in technology, packaged goods, professional services and hospitality sector. During his career, he consulted with some of the most iconic and respected businesses in the world, earning a reputation for being a thought-provoking and insightful collaborator.

Hilton combines an insatiable curiosity and drive with a profound belief that today’s brands can only succeed if they marry Strategy, Culture, and Purpose. Working at the intersection of those three areas is where he delivers the most impact. Hilton’s personal mantra is “Question Everything,” which he finds useful for traversing today’s thorny and uncertain business climate.

To contact Hilton directly, connect with him on LinkedIn.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Linda Kleist

    When rebranding a company and meeting with its leadership team, their purpose/mission is a very early part of the conversation. We often hear, “Yes, we definitely have a mission statement: To be the best at what we do and exceed customer expectations.” (yawns & vagueness.) One of the highlights of my work is to help them discover their organization’s unique purpose in the world. When we land on it, their renewed passion for their work and organization is almost tangible.

    • HiltonB

      Congratulations Linda. I’ve faced similar obscure/oblique statements. Simplistically I usual start by saying “Your Purpose is the impact you want to have in the world. Its an aspiration and one you may never reach”…”Your Mission is what you’re doing TODAY to begin the journey to reach achieving your Purpose”. I’ve found that a simple way to delineate the two. My best regards to you.

      • Linda Kleist

        Hilton, that’s helpful, thank you!

  • Patrick Trottier

    Hi Hilton, your statement says it all: ” Ultimately, if your Purpose can’t be directly tied to Values and Behaviours – the cornerstones of Culture – then, unfortunately, its nothing more than a PR platitude.”

    ‘Purpose’ is certainly a multifaceted aspect of organizations which relates to both its internal environments as well as to its external environments.

    Good article…

    • HiltonB

      Thank you for your kind remarks Patrick. I’m delighted you enjoyed this post. Its a topic dear to my heart – and a critical need for organizations to address. Please feel free to connect on LinkedIn.

  • Roy Levine

    Great article, Hilton.

    The events of the past week reminds us all of the importance of clarity of purpose. It drives how we treat our employees, our customers and our constituents. It allows our authentic voice to be heard whether it’s in an ad, a CEO’s remarks or a press conference.

    The confluence of crazy stands to get worse not better the longer brands, leaders and politicians keep their heads in the sand.

    Keep up the inspiring writing, Hilton.

    • HiltonB

      Thank you Roy. Appreciate the support.